Mugshots for all in Beijing’s internet bars

By David Bandurski — The Beijing government has implemented new regulations requiring all first-time visitors to any of the city’s more than 1,500 internet bars to have their pictures taken and their ID cards scanned on site, according to a report by The Beijing News earlier this week. The regulations require that all internet bars be installed with registration terminals by the end of this year. [Frontpage Image: Inside a Chinese internet bar, by NewChengdu available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

According to the report, city residents will be required to stand before government-issued image terminals before being cleared to go online, and their photographs and scanned ID cards will be sent instantly to a monitoring platform at the Beijing Cultural Law Enforcement Agency, where the information will be stored.

But never fear. The Beijing News reassures us that the entire process will take just 30 seconds.

The newspaper quoted Li Fei (??), a spokesperson for the Beijing Cultural Law Enforcement Agency, as saying the policy was aimed at preventing “ID sharing” (????). The monitoring platform will allow enforcement officials to target any terminal at any internet bar in the city to compare the user with registered information.

Writing about the new regulations on Friday, a columnist at China Youth Daily raised concerns they might leave web users “entirely naked,” exposing their private information and correspondence to enforcement officials.

Portions of the China Youth Daily editorial follow:

In recent years, clampdowns on Beijing’s “black internet bars,” the decrease in the number of accidents in internet bars and regulations on the industry have all stemmed from this kind of high-pressure control from enforcement bodies. It’s only that while ordinary people like this writer enjoy the peace and order the comes with this high-pressure control, we must also give up the freedom and convenience of online rights we once enjoyed. As one web user said, taking pictures of web users in this way, and scanning their IDs, means internet bars are no different from airports — only in airports what people are looking for is security, but in internet bars people are looking for a piece of freedom and comfort.

And now they are installing a monitoring system. And now they are storing photographs and personal information. According to reports, this is all in order to better prevent “ID sharing.” Because “in the monitoring center, personnel will be able to target any terminal at any internet bar in the city to compare the user with registered information.” But in this monitoring system that renders users “naked,” how will the freedom and privacy of citizens using the internet be protected? The Beijing Cultural Law Enforcement Agency reassures us that these controls end with the enforcement team’s monitoring platform, and that we “have no need to be concerned about the leaking of personal information.” But aside from worrying that personal information might be leaked to others, we also worry that the freedom of our online communication and the privacy of our conversations will be betrayed by public power. Under this platform of “monitoring of any terminal at any internet bar in the city,” won’t monitoring mean that enforcement officials will have the right or the opportunity to view our chat histories? Can they not read our private correspondence at will? Won’t any and all online behavior fall under the eyes of the enforcement officials? If this is the case, then all web users really are “entirely naked,” if only before a limited number of enforcement personnel.

The “fear is often greater than the danger,” but in consideration of citizens’ rights, there is always a need to be sufficiently alert to intrusions by public power. Overseas, even when urgent necessities bring new restrictions on personal liberties these tend to meet with great public skepticism. This was true of the U.S. Patriot Act passed after the 911 attacks . . . Even though it arose from the urgent need to respond to terrorism, this law still drew fierce opposition from various quarters of society from the first day it was issued, and it particularly raised concerns among the public that the government might invade the privacy of citizens. Shouldn’t our enforcement and regulatory authorities think carefully about whether it is truly necessary to carry out such monitoring on every web user in internet bars?

[Posted by David Bandurski, October 19, 2008, 12:14am]